IN THE SECOND HALF OF OCTOBER, our
ReadTheSpirit staff is regrouping for several projects we will launch
in the next few months. During these two weeks, we’re publishing a mix
of new articles and some earlier stories that are favorites with our
TODAY, we’re sharing a piece by one of the most popular Guest Writers to visit ReadTheSpirit during the past year:
This wonderful story comes from Dr. Gail Hayes of Durham, North Carolina. (At the end of this story you can click to learn more about her.) When this story was first published, our theme of the week was: How can I see the world more clearly?
Dr. Hayes answered this question in a true story she calls:
“I Am Sienna”
“YOU ARE the prettiest and smartest little thing that your Granny has ever seen,” my grandmother said as she buried me in the softness of her embrace. I could feel the stiffness of the starch from her dress as it scratched my young face, but that did not matter. I was her first-born grandchild and I was in her arms. There was no other song I longed to hear — no other melody that sounded so sweet.
The year I turned 6 years old, my family moved from North Carolina to Okinawa, Japan, where I started the first grade. The year was 1961. Just as the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in the United States, we moved to a foreign country. At 6, I was oblivious to all the noises of race that surrounded me. What I did not know was that ethnicity touches you wherever you go and you cannot hide who and what you are for long.
I loved the warm Okinawa sunshine and school but when I went to the second grade, things changed. Granny passed away. At first, her passing didn’t seem to bother me because it had been almost two years since I had seen her. The essence of her words and the fragrance of her love still lingered and touched me in the landscape of my identity.
But something had changed. When I tried to access Granny’s picture from my memory banks, the photo was blurred. And when I looked in the mirror, I had difficulty finding that pretty, smart girl who used to stare back at me. I missed my grandmother and tried to find her each night in the folds of my pillow.
I missed Granny and did not know how to replace the comfort she gave me. So as I went to the second grade, I decided that I needed something more than playing with my three younger sisters. I needed a boyfriend. I had no idea what to do with a boyfriend but it just seemed like the thing to do, especially since I had the perfect candidate.
He was beautiful. His blond hair captured each ray of light and commanded them to dance to his music. His blue eyes made you want to swim even if you had never had swimming lessons. His name was Mike McDowell and he was the most handsome boy I had ever seen and I decided that he had to be mine.
Mike sat in front of me in class. Every day, he turned around, placed both arms on my desk, cradled his chin on the back of his hands and stared into my face. The teacher had to constantly remind him to turn around because he would not do his work. He seemed to like looking at me as much as I liked looking at him.
“You are so pretty and I like you,” he said. I smiled because I thought he was great too. He would tell me how pretty and smart I was so much that it almost irritated me — but I loved it.
Then, one day, Michael did something that would change the way I saw myself and my life forever.
“Mike, I want you to be my boyfriend,” I said as I got lost in the deep blue ocean that lapped the shores of his eyes. He smiled and then shook his head, telling me his answer was no. I was startled. How could this boy who, every day could not stop looking at me tell me no? How could he play like this with my 7-year-old emotions?
“Didn’t you tell me that you thought I was pretty and you liked me?”
“Yes, but I can’t be your boyfriend,” he said without releasing me from his stare.
“But why not? Don’t you like me anymore?”
“Yes, I like you but I can’t be your boyfriend.”
“But why not?” I pressed him for an answer and he gave it by taking his index finger and slowly rubbing the back of my hand.
I pulled my hand away and looked at it but could see nothing but the golden tone of my natural skin color. There was no dirt. I had not marked it with a pencil or crayon. It was the same hand that held my books, pencils, and crayons that I used in school. There was nothing different except for the sensation of his touch.
I thought: Oh, no! There must be something wrong with this boy.
I said: “What’s wrong with the back of my hand and why can’t you be my boyfriend?”
The silence was a warning.
Finally, he said with a slight frown, “I can’t be your boyfriend because …” and he paused before adding “… you’re black.”
I thought: This boy is not just dumb! He’s blind, too! Feelings for which I had no name bubbled up into my heart. I had fallen in love with someone who was not only blind but also as dumb as a doorknob. I had to educate this boy.
“I am not Black. I am Sienna,” I said in my first-born teaching voice. I had younger sisters who had more sense than he did. And they knew their colors too. I felt certain that once he heard the truth, he would see the error of his ways, realize that he made a dumb mistake and then become my boyfriend.
What he did not know was that when I was in the first grade, my mother promised to buy me a box of 64 crayons when I went to the second grade. When I got those crayons, the first thing I did was to find my skin color. If he was smart, he would have asked his mother to buy him a box of 64 crayons so he could have learned his colors too.
When I got my crayons, I breathed in the colors. I had to find my identity within this radiant, vibrant palette. I had to find my skin color. There it was. It was beautiful, rich, creamy Sienna. It was a far cry from the black crayon this silly boy was talking about.
“No, you are Black,” he said with some irritation in his voice. Well, I had already found his color, so I was ready for him.
“So, what color are you if you think I am Black?”
“I am White!” he said with a harshness I had never heard in his voice before.
My mind screamed with 7-year-old rage: Okay, so this boy really is blind and dumb too. I am so glad that he did not want to be my boyfriend. He doesn’t even know his colors! How did he get to second grade without knowing his colors?
I was more than prepared to give him a lesson in color education that day. As I reached into my 64 colors, I knew that I had the crayon for him and it was far from white.
“You are not White! You are Salmon Pink! See, here it is,” I said as I placed the crayon next to back of his hand so he could see the perfect match.
“I am not pink but you are Black!” he said with teary eyes. As he turned around, I caught sight of his face as it turned red with anger.
The back of his head was foreign to me. For the first time, I could see the thick, greasiness of his hair. For the first time, I could see the largeness of his ears. He was not so handsome any more. He was dumb and I wanted nothing else to do with him.
That afternoon, I decided that I needed to have a talk with my mother regarding this pink boy.
I usually enjoyed my ride home on the bus, but that day the thoughts of my conversation with Mike kept me from seeing the beauty of the shining China Sea and the luscious, green leaves of banana tress that dotted the wondrous landscape of the island. I was focused on talking to my mother, the only person I believed would have the answers I needed.
The familiar sound of humming fans greeted me as I came in the front door. The smell of dinner cooking in the kitchen embraced me and the safety of my bedroom called to me as I ran down the hallway. I threw my book bag on the bed and kicked off my shoes. I wanted to throw them against the wall and scream because I did not understand the feelings that burned inside me.
“Hi Baby. How was school today?” my mother called as I ran to her and hugged her.
“Mama, a boy in my class called me a name today. He told me that I was Black. Look at me Mama. What color do you see? Can’t you tell that I am not Black? I am Sienna,” I said as I pulled away so that she could get a good look at me. I saw the sides of her mouth trying to form a smile although she tried to hide it.
“Baby, they call us Black and colored,” she replied, not looking up as she pulled a sky blue towel from the pile of clothes on the bed.
“Well, Mama, who is ‘they’ and why can’t ‘they’ make up their minds about which color ‘they’ want to call us?” I wanted to find “they” and have a talk with them. The first thing I wanted to do was to buy “they” a box of 64 crayons because “they” obviously needed help with their colors too.
“Baby, there are many things you do not understand yet,” Mama said. “They call us many things including the name Negro. There are also a few other names they call us that I won’t mention,” she said as I saw her stare out the window with an expression on her face that I had never seen before.
“Negro? Mama, I don’t like the sound of that word,” I shrugged my defiant shoulders and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Well baby, there will be a lot of things in this life that you will not like. This is just one of them.”
I walked away before she could say more and as a strange lump formed in my throat. I had heard enough on this subject for the day. Mama had never taught me about differences. For the first time, I realized that I was the only “Black” girl in my class. For the first time, I realized that although I was smart, the other children in my class, including Mike, had always known something about me that I had just discovered. Maybe I wasn’t so smart after all. One finger had opened up a whole, new way of looking at the world and the world looking back at me.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”
This story of identity had a great impact on my personal journey.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that identity has everything to do with our destiny. There have been missed opportunities because I did not see myself as worthy or good enough or smart enough or anything else enough. Many of those feelings of inadequacy stemmed from other events like the one with Mike.
But the one-finger incident did not have its intended impact on my life. Instead of sitting down and accepting defeat, I became defiant whenever someone tried to tell me or make me feel that I was anything less than beautiful and smart. I had to fight this battle not only with others but also within myself.
Even though I was young when this happened, I began to understand the pain of being rejected because of what I was — instead of who I was. I became aware of how others treated me because of my skin color and personality. I watched and waited to be rejected and blamed many of my life’s failures on the behavior of others. For many years, I allowed this incident to color my world with a murky darkness that shaped my behavior.
I made many mistakes along the way, but then something wonderful happened. I had a Road to Damascus experience where God’s light illuminated the darkness that tried to overtake me. I met the One who created me and my Sienna.
So, what does that mean to me?
I learned that even something negative can catapult you to a place of personal power. I’ve learned that our identity or how we see ourselves has a great impact on how we make decisions, how we interact with others and how we view the world. I’ve heard people say that if you place too much focus on identity then you are selfish and self-centered. I’ve heard some of the same people say that if you hold onto hurt feelings then you are prideful and just want attention.
I say that it’s easy to say those things once you have found your true identity and are walking in place of confidence. But if you are still in the place where your identity is not clear, you may feel like you’re caught in a time warp and still need help crossing over into the land of freedom. There are times when you need a little help to cross over.
Now that I’ve crossed over and understand the beauty and power of how God created me, I can see that those crayons helped me to solve a riddle that has plagued mankind for centuries. I can see that I have a godly obligation to help others who may be trapped on the other side of identity. I have to let them know that if I made it, then they can too.
Through the simplicity of youth, I also discovered the splendor of God’s color palette and loved it from the moment I saw it. I am a Sienna daughter of the King, a woman of African descent, living in a place that may not appreciate my skin tone, personality or gifts. But that doesn’t change the fact that God created me in God’s image.
Nothing could change my experience with my crayon box. Not even the toxic finger of racism sweeping across my hand.
CARE TO READ MORE?
We’ve got a brief biography of Dr. Gayle Hayes and links to her various Web sites and programs.
AND, TELL US what you think, please? Click on the “Comment” link below — or Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.